CATASTROPHIC ECONOMICS The predators of New Orleans After the criticism of his disastrous handling the Katrina disaster, President George Bush promises a reconstruction programme of $200bn for areas destroyed by the hurricane.

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CATASTROPHIC ECONOMICS



The predators of New Orleans




After the criticism of his disastrous handling the Katrina


disaster, President George Bush promises a reconstruction


programme of $200bn for areas destroyed by the hurricane
.


But the first and biggest beneficiaries will be businesses


that specialise in profiting from disaster, and have already


had lucrative contracts in Iraq; they will gentrify New


Orleans at the expense of its poor, black citizens.




By MIKE DAVIS




THE tempest that destroyed New Orleans was conjured out of


tropical seas and an angry atmosphere 250km offshore of the


Bahamas. Labelled initially as "tropical depression 12" on


23 August,

it quickly intensified into "tropical storm


Katrina", the eleventh named storm in one of the busiest


hurricane seasons in history. Making landfall near Miami on


24 August, Katrina had grown into a small hurricane,


category one on the Saffi
r
-
Simpson hurricane scale, with 125


km/h winds that killed nine people and knocked out power to


one million residents.



Crossing over Florida to the Gulf of Mexico where it


wandered for four days, Katrina underwent a monstrous and


large
ly unexpected transformation. Siphoning vast quantities


of energy from the Gulf's abnormally warm waters, 3°C above


their usual August temperature, Katrina mushroomed into an


awesome, top
-
of
-
the
-
scale, class five hurricane with 290


km/h win
ds that propelled tsunami
-
like storm surges nearly


10m in height. The journal Nature later reported that


Katrina absorbed so much heat from the Gulf that "water


temperatures dropped dramatically after it had passed, in


some regions from 30°
C to 26°C" (1). Horrified


meteorologists had rarely seen a Caribbean hurricane


replenish its power so dramatically, and researchers debated


whether or not Katrina's explosive growth was a portent of


global warming's impact on hurricane inte
nsity.



Although Katrina had dropped to category four, with 210
-
249


km/h winds, by the time it careened ashore in Plaquemines


Parish, Louisiana, near the mouth of the Mississippi river


on early 29 August, it was small consolation to the doo
med


oil ports, fishing camps and Cajun villages in its direct


path. In Plaquemines, and again on the Gulf Coast of


Mississippi and Alabama, it churned the bayous with


relentless wrath, leaving behind a devastated landscape that


looked l
ike a watery Hiroshima.



Metropolitan New Orleans, with 1.3 million inhabitants, was


originally dead centre in Katrina's way, but the storm


veered to the right after landfall and its eye passed 55km


to the east of the metropolis. The Big Ea
sy, largely under


sea
-
level and bordered by the salt
-
water embayments known as


Lake Pontchartrain (on the north) and Lake Borgne (on the


east), was spared the worst of Katrina's winds but not its


waters.



Hurricane
-
driven storm surges f
rom both lakes broke through


the notoriously inadequate levees, not as high as in more


affluent areas, which guard black
-
majority eastern New


Orleans as well as adjacent white blue
-
collar suburbs in St


Bernard Parish. There was no warning a
nd the rapidly rising


waters trapped and killed hundreds of unevacuated people in


their bedrooms, including 34 elderly residents of a nursing


home. Later, probably around midday, a more formidable


floodwall gave way at the 17th Street Canal
, allowing Lake


Pontchartrain to pour into low
-
lying central districts.



Although New Orleans's most famous tourist assets, including


the French Quarter and the Garden District, and its most


patrician neighbourhoods, such as Audubon Park, a
re built on


high ground and survived the inundation, the rest of the


city was flooded to its rooftops or higher, damaging or


destroying more than 150,000 housing units. Locals promptly


called it "Lake George" after the president who failed
to


build new levees or come to their aid after the old ones had


burst.



Inequalities of class and race



Bush initially said that "the storm didn't discriminate", a


claim he was later forced to retract: every aspect of the


catastrophe was shaped by inequalities of class and race.


Besides unmasking the fraudulent claims of the Department of


Homeland Security to make Americans safer, the shock and awe


of Katrina also exposed the devastating consequences of



federal neglect of majority black and Latino big cities and


their vital infrastructures. The incompetence of the Federal


Emergency Management Agency (Fema) demonstrated the folly of


entrusting life
-
and
-
death public mandates to clueless


pol
itical appointees and ideological foes of "big


government". The speed with which Washington suspended the


prevailing wage standards of the Davis
-
Bacon Act (2) and


swung open the doors of New Orleans to corporate looters


such as Halliburton,

the Shaw Group and Blackwater Security,


already fat from the spoils of the Tigris, contrasted


obscenely with Fema's deadly procrastination over sending


water, food and buses to the multitudes trapped in the


stinking hell of the Louisiana S
uperdome.



But if New Orleans, as many bitter exiles now believe, was


allowed to die as a result of governmental incompetence and


neglect, blame also squarely falls on the Governor's Mansion


in Baton Rouge, and especially on City Hall on Pe
rdido


Street. Mayor C Ray Nagin is a wealthy African
-
American


cable television executive and a Democrat, who was elected


in 2002 with 87% of the white vote (3).



He was ultimately responsible for the safety of the


estimated quarter of t
he population that was too poor or


infirm to own a car. His stunning failure to mobilise


resources to evacuate car
-
less residents and hospital


patients, despite warning signals from the city's botched


response to the threat of Hurricane Iva
n in September 2004,


reflected more than personal ineptitude: it was also a


symbol of the callous attitude among the city's elites, both


white and black, toward their poor neighbours in backswamp


districts and rundown housing projects. Inde
ed, the ultimate


revelation of Katrina was how comprehensively the promise of


equal rights for poor African
-
Americans has been dishonoured


and betrayed by every level of government.



A death foretold



The death of
New Orleans had been forewarned; indeed no


disaster in American history had been so accurately


predicted in advance. Although the Homeland Security


Secretary, Michael Chertoff, would later claim that "the


size of the storm was beyond anythi
ng his department could


have anticipated," this was flatly untrue. If scientists


were surprised by Katrina's sudden burgeoning to super
-
storm


dimensions, they had grim confidence in exactly what New


Orleans could expect from the landfall of

a great hurricane.



Since the nasty experience of Hurricane Betsy in September


1965 (a category three storm that inundated many eastern


parts of Orleans Parish that were drowned by Katrina), the


vulnerability of the city to wind
-
driven sto
rm surges has


been intensively studied and widely publicised. In 1998,


after a close call with Hurricane Georges, research


increased and a sophisticated computer study by Louisiana


State University warned of the "virtual destruction" of the


city by a category four storm approaching from the


southwest (4).



The city's levees and stormwalls are only designed to


withstand a category three hurricane, but even that


threshold of protection was revealed as illusory in computer



simulations last year by the Army Corps of Engineers. The


continuous erosion of southern Louisiana's barrier islands


and bayou wetlands (an estimated annual shoreline loss of


60
-
100 sq km) increases the height of surges as they arrive


at

New Orleans, while the city, along with its levees, is


slowly sinking. As a result even a category three, if slow


moving, would flood most of it (5). Global warming and


sea
-
level rise will only make the "Big One", as folks in New


Orleans,
like their counterparts in Los Angeles, call the


local apocalypse, even bigger.



Lest politicians have difficulty understanding the


implications of such predictions, other studies modelled the


exact extent of flooding as well as the expecte
d casualties


of a direct hit. Supercomputers repeatedly cranked out the


same horrifying numbers: 160 sq km or more of the city under


water with 80
-
100,000 dead, the worst disaster in United


States history. In the light of these studies, Fem
a warned


in 2001 that a hurricane flood in New Orleans was one of the


three mega
-
catastrophes most likely to strike the US in the


near future, along with a California earthquake and a


terrorist attack on Manhattan.



Shortly afterwards,
the magazine Scientific American


published an account of the flood danger ("Drowning New


Orleans", October 2001) which, like an award
-
winning series


("The Big One') in the local newspaper, the Times
-
Picayune,


in 2002, was chillingly accurat
e in its warnings. Last year,


after meteorologists predicted a strong upsurge in hurricane


activity, federal officials carried out an elaborate


disaster drill ("Hurricane Pam") that re
-
confirmed that


casualties would be likely to be in the
tens of thousands.



The Bush administration's response to these frightening


forecasts was to rebuff Louisiana's urgent requests for more


flood protection: the crucial Coast 2050 project to revive


protective wetlands, the culmination of a de
cade of research


and negotiation, was shelved and levee appropriations,


including the completion of defences around Lake


Pontchartrain, were repeatedly slashed.



Washington at work



In part, this was a consequence o
f new priorities in


Washington that squeezed the budget of the Army Corps: a


huge tax cut for the rich, the financing of the war in Iraq,


and the costs of "Homeland Security". Yet there was


undoubtedly a brazen political motive as well: New

Orleans


is a black
-
majority, solidly Democratic city whose voters


frequently wield the balance of power in state elections.


Why would an administration so relentlessly focused on


partisan warfare seek to reward this thorn in Karl Rove's



side by authorising the $2.5bn that senior Corps officials


estimated would be required to build a category five


protection system around the city? (6).



Indeed when the head of the Corps, a former Republican


congressman, protested in 2002

against the way that


flood
-
control projects were being short
-
changed, Bush


removed him from office. Last year the administration also


pressured Congress to cut $71m from the budget of the


Corps's New Orleans district despite warnings of ep
ic


hurricane seasons close at hand.



To be fair, Washington has spent a lot of money on


Louisiana, but it has been largely on non
-
hurricane
-
related


public works that benefit shipping interests and hardcore


Republican districts (7). Besi
des underfunding coastline


restoration and levee construction, the White House


mindlessly vandalised Fema. Under director James Lee Witt


(who enjoyed Cabinet rank), Fema had been the showpiece of


the Clinton administration, winning bipartis
an praise for


its efficient dispatch of search and rescue teams and prompt


provision of federal aid after the 1993 Mississippi River


floods and the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake.



When Republicans took over the agency in 2001, it was


trea
ted as enemy terrain: the new director, former Bush


campaign manager Joe Allbaugh, decried disaster assistance


as "an oversized entitlement programme" and urged Americans


to rely more upon the Salvation Army and other faith
-
based


groups. Al
lbaugh cut back many key flood and storm


mitigation programmes, before resigning in 2003 to become a


highly
-
paid consultant to firms seeking contracts in Iraq.


(An inveterate ambulance
-
chaser, he recently reappeared in


Louisiana as an insid
er broker for firms looking for


lucrative reconstruction work in the wake of Katrina.)



Since its absorption into the new Department of Homeland


Security in 2003 (with the loss of its representation in the


cabinet), Fema has been repeatedly

downsized, and also


ensnared in new layers of bureaucracy and patronage. Last


year Fema employees wrote to Congress: "Emergency managers


at Fema have been supplanted on the job by politically


connected contractors and by novice employees w
ith little


background or knowledge" (8).



A new Maginot Line



A prime example was Allbaugh's successor and protégé,


Michael Brown, a Republican lawyer with no emergency


management experience, whose previous job was
representing


the wealthy owners of Arabian horses. Under Brown, Fema


continued its metamorphosis from an "all hazards" approach


to a monomaniacal emphasis on terrorism. Three
-
quarters of


the federal disaster preparedness grants that Fema fo
rmerly


used to support local earthquake, storm and flood prevention


has been diverted to counter
-
terrorism scenarios. The Bush


administration has built a Maginot Line against al
-
Qaida


while neglecting levees, storm walls and pumps.



The
re was every reason for anxiety, if not panic, when the


director of the National Hurricane Centre in Miami, Max


Mayfield, warned Bush (still vacationing in Texas) and


Homeland Security officials in a video
-
conference on 28


August that Katri
na was poised to devastate New Orleans. Yet


Brown, faced with the possible death of 100,000


locals,
-
exuded breathless, arrogant bravado: "We were so


ready for this. We planned for this kind of disaster for


many years because we've always kn
own about New Orleans."


For months Brown, and his boss Chertoff, had trumpeted the


new National Response Plan that would ensure unprecedented


coordination amongst government agencies during a major


disaster.



But as floodwaters swallowe
d New Orleans and its suburbs, it


was difficult to find anyone to answer a phone, much less


take charge of the relief operation. "A mayor in my


district," an angry Republican congressman told the Wall


Street Journal, "tried to get supplies
for his constituents,


who were hit directly by the hurricane. He called for help


and was put on hold for 45 minutes. Eventually, a bureaucrat


promised to write a memo to his supervisor" (9).


Although state
-
of
-
the
-
art communications were sup
posedly the


backbone of the new plan, frantic rescue workers and city


officials were plagued by the breakdown of phone systems and


the lack of a common bandwidth.



At the same time they faced immediate shortages of the


critical food rat
ions, potable water, sandbags, generator


fuel, satellite phones, portable toilets, buses, boats, and


helicopters, Fema should have pre
-
positioned in New Orleans.


Most fatefully, Chertoff inexplicably waited 24 hours after


the city had been
flooded to upgrade the disaster to an


"incident of national significance", the legal precondition


for moving federal response into high gear.



Far more than the reluctance of the president to return to


work, or the Vice
-
President, Dick Chen
ey, to interrupt a


mansion
-
hunting trip, or the Secretary of State, Condoleezza


Rice, to end a shoe
-
buying expedition in Manhattan, it was


the dinosaur
-
like slowness of the brain of Homeland Security


to register the magnitude of the disaste
r that doomed so


many to die clinging to their roofs or hospital beds.


Lathered in premature, embarrassing praise from Bush for


their heroic exertions, Chertoff and Brown were more like


sleepwalkers.



As late as 2 September, Chertoff as
tonished an interviewer


on National Public Radio by claiming that the scenes of


death and desperation inside the Superdome, which the world


was watching on television, were just "rumours and


anecdotes". Brown blamed the victims, claiming th
at most


deaths were the fault of "people who did not heed evacuation


warnings", although he knew that "heeding" had nothing to do


with the lack of an automobile or confinement in a


wheelchair.



Despite claims by the Secretary of Defence
, Donald Rumsfeld,


that the tragedy had nothing to do with Iraq, the absence of


more than a third of the Louisiana National Guard and much


of its heavy equipment crippled rescue and relief operations


from the outset. Fema often obstructed r
ather than


facilitated relief: preventing civilian aircraft from


evacuating hospital patients and delaying authorisations for


out
-
of
-
state National Guard and rescue teams to enter the


area. As an embittered representative from devastated St


Bernard Parish told the Times
-
Picayune: "Canadian help


arrived before the US Army did" (10).



A conservative New Jerusalem



New Orleans City Hall could have used Canadian help: the


emergency command centre on its ninth
floor was put out of


operation early in the emergency by a shortage of diesel to


run its backup generator. For two days Nagin and his aides


were cut off from the outside world by the failure of both


their landlines and cellular phones. This

collapse of the


city's command
-
and
-
control apparatus is puzzling in view of


the $18m in federal grants that the city had spent since


2002 in training exercises to deal with such contingencies.


Even more mysterious was the relationship betw
een Nagin and


his state and federal counterparts. As the mayor later


summarised it, the city's disaster plan was: "Get people to


higher ground and have the feds and the state
-
airlift


supplies to them." Yet Nagin's Director of Homeland


Security, Colonel Terry Ebbert, astonished journalists with


the admission that "he never spoke with Fema about the state


disaster blueprint" (11).



Nagin later ranted with justification about Fema's failure


to pre
-
position supplies or to ru
sh buses and medical


supplies promptly to the Superdome. But evacuation planning


was, above all, a city responsibility; and earlier planning


exercises and surveys had shown that at least a fifth of the


population would be unable to leave wi
thout


assistance (12). In September 2004 Nagin had been


roundly criticised for making no effort to evacuate poor


residents as their better
-
off neighbours drove off before


category
-
three Hurricane Ivan (which fortunately veered away


from

the city at the last moment).



In response, the city produced, but never distributed,


30,000 videos targeted at poor neighbourhoods that urged


residents "Don't wait for the city, don't wait for the


state, don't wait for the Red Cross, leav
e." In the absence


of official planning to provide buses or better, trains,


such advice seem to imply that poor people had to start


walking. But when, after the breakdown of sanitation and


order in the Superdome, hundreds did attempt to esc
ape the


city by walking across a bridge into the white suburb of


Gretna, they were turned back by panicky local police who


fired over their heads.



It is inevitable that many of those left behind in drowning


neighbourhoods will interpre
t City Hall's unconscionable


negligence in the context of the bitter economic and racial


schisms that have long made New Orleans the most tragic city


in the US. It is no secret that its business elites and


their allies in City Hall would li
ke to push the poorest


segment of the population, blamed for high crime rates, out


of the city. Historic public
-
housing projects have been


razed to make room for upper
-
income townhouses and a


Wal
-
Mart. In other housing projects, residents a
re routinely


evicted for offences as trivial as their children's curfew


violations. The ultimate goal seems to be a tourist


theme
-
park New Orleans, Las Vegas on the Mississippi, with


chronic poverty hidden away in bayous, trailer parks and


prisons outside the city limits.



Not surprisingly, some advocates of a whiter, safer city see


a divine plan in Katrina. "We finally cleaned up public


housing in New Orleans," a leading Louisiana Republican


confined to Washington lobbyi
sts. "We couldn't do it, but


God did" (13). Nagin boasted of his empty streets and


ruined neighbourhoods: "This city is for the first time free


of drugs and violence, and we intend to keep it that way."



A partial ethnic cleansing of New Or
leans will be a fait


accompli without massive local and federal efforts to


provide affordable housing for tens of thousands of poor


renters now dispersed across the country in refugee


shelters. Already there is intense debate about transfor
ming


some of poorest, low
-
lying neighbourhoods, such the Lower


Ninth Ward (flooded again by Hurricane Rita), into water


retention ponds to protect wealthier parts. As the Wall


Street Journal has rightly emphasised, "That would mean


prev
enting some of New Orleans's poorest residents from ever


returning to their neighbourhoods" (14).



Epic political dogfight



As everyone recognises, the rebuilding of New Orleans and


the rest of afflicted Gulf region will b
e an epic political


dogfight. Already Nagin has staked out the claims of the


local gentrifying class by announcing that he will appoint a


16
-
member reconstruction commission evenly split between


whites and blacks, although the city is more
than 75%


African
-
American. Its "white
-
flight" suburbs (social


springboards for neo
-
Nazi David Duke's frightening electoral


successes in the early 1990s) will fiercely lobby for their


cause, while Mississippi's powerful Republican establishm
ent


has already warned that it will not play second fiddle to


Big Easy Democrats. In this inevitable clash of interest


groups, it is unlikely that the city's traditional black


neighbourhoods, the true hearths of its joyous sensibility


a
nd jazz culture, will be able to exercise much clout.



The Bush administration hopes to find its own resurrection


in a combination of rampant fiscal Keynesianism and


fundamentalist social engineering. Katrina's immediate


impact on the Potom
ac was such a steep fall in Bush's


popularity, and, collaterally, in approval for the US


occupation of Iraq, that Republican hegemony seemed suddenly


under threat. For the first time since the Los Angeles riots


of 1992, "old Democrat" issue
s such as poverty, racial


injustice and public investment temporarily commanded public


discourse, and the Wall Street Journal warned that


Republicans had "to get back on the political and


intellectual offensive" before liberals like Ted Ken
nedy


could revive New Deal nostrums, such as a massive federal


agency for flood
-
control and shoreline restoration along


the Gulf coast (15).



The Heritage Foundation hosted meetings late into the night


at which conservative ideologues,

congressional cadres and


the ghosts of Republicans past (such as Edwin Meese, Ronald


Reagan's former Attorney General) hashed a strategy to


rescue Bush from the toxic aftermath of Fema's disgrace. New


Orleans's floodlit but empty Jackson S
quare was the eerie


backdrop for Bush's 15 September speech on reconstruction.


It was an extraordinary performance. He sunnily reassured


two million victims that the White House would pick up most


of the tab for the estimated $200bn flood d
amage: deficit


spending on a scale that would have given Keynes vertigo.


(It has not deterred him from proposing another huge tax cut


for the super
-
rich.)



Bush wooed his political base with a dream list of


long
-
sought
-
after conservativ
e social reforms: school and


housing vouchers (16), a central role for churches, an


urban homestead lottery (17), extensive tax breaks to


businesses, the creation of a Gulf Opportunity


Zone (18), and the suspension of annoying government



regulations (in the fine print these include prevailing


wages in construction and environmental regulations on


offshore drilling).



For connoisseurs of Bush
-
speak, the speech was a moment of


exquisite déjà vu. Had not similar promises bee
n made on the


banks of the Euphrates? As Paul Krugman cruelly pointed out,


the White House, having tried and failed to turn Iraq "into


a laboratory for conservative economic policies", would now


experiment on traumatised inhabitants of Bilo
xi and the


Ninth Ward (19). Congressman Mike Pence, a leader of the


powerful Republican Study Group which helped draft Bush's


reconstruction agenda, emphasised that Republicans would


turn the rubble into a capitalist utopia: "We want to tur
n


the Gulf Coast into a magnet for free enterprise. The last


thing we want is a federal city where New Orleans once


was" (20).



Symptomatically, the Army Corps in New Orleans is now led by


the official who formerly oversaw contracts in


Iraq (21). The Lower Ninth Ward may never exist again,


but already the barroom and strip
-
joint owners in the French


Quarter are relishing the fat days ahead, as the Halliburton


workers, Blackwater mercenaries, and Bechtel engineers leave



their federal paychecks behind on Bourbon Street. As they


say in Cajun,
--

and no doubt now in the White House too
--


"laissez les bons temps rouler!"





* Mike Davis is the author of 'The Monster at Our Door. The


Global Threat of Avian

Flu' (New Press, New York, 2005),


'Dead cities, and other tales' (New Press, 2002), 'Late


Victorian holocausts: El Nino famines and the making of the


third world' (Verso, London and New York, 2001), 'Ecology of


fear: Los Angeles and th
e imagination of disaster' (Picador,


London, 2000) and many other works.




Original text in English



(1) Quirin Schiermeier, "The Power of Katrina," Nature,


no 437, London, 8 September 2005.



(2) Editorial note: legislation dating from

the New Deal


obliging public employers to respect the minimum local wage.



(3) Though Louisiana voted for Bush in 2004 (56.7%), New


Orleans is traditionally Democrat.



(4) Study by engineering professor Joseph Suhayda


described in Rich
ard Campanella, Time and Place in New


Orleans, Gretna, Los Angeles, 2002.



(5) John Travis, "Scientists' Fears Come True as


Hurricane Floods New Orleans", Science, no 309, New York, 9


September 2005.



(6) Andrew Revkin and Christopher D
rew, "Intricate Flood


Protection Long a Focus of Dispute," New York Times, 1


September 2005.



(7) "Katrina's Message on the Corps," New York Times, 13


September 2005.



(8) "Top Fema Jobs: No Experience Required," Los Angeles


Times,
9 September 2005.



(9) Congressman Bobby Jindal, "When Red Tape Trumped


Common Sense," Wall Street Journal, 8 September 2005.



(10) Melinda Deslatte, "St Bernard Parish residents


overflow the Capital," Times
-
Picayune, 12 September 2005.




(11) New York Times, 7 and 11 September 2005.



(12) Tony Reichhardt, Erika Check and Emma Morris,


"After the flood," Nature, no 437, 8 September 2005.



(13) Congressman Richard Baker (Baton Rouge) quoted in


"Washington Wire," Wall Street
Journal, 9 September 2005.



(14) "As Gulf Prepares to Rebuild, Tensions Mount Over


Control," Wall Street Journal, 15 September 2005.



(15) "Hurricane Bush," Wall Street Journal, 15 September


2005.



(16) Editor's note: rental vouchers we
re issued, backed


by Congress
-
approved funds, to 20,000 homeless after the


1994 Los Angeles earthquake to pay for rent anywhere in the


state.



(17) Editor's note: a plan to distribute federal land to


those who would pledge to erect a ho
use on it and could


afford to do so. It is estimated that this would provide


about 4,000 sites for 250,000 displaced people, 125,000 of


whom were renting.



(18) Editor's note: a zone in which relief is related to


private financial initi
atives.



(19) "Not the New Deal," New York Times, 16 September


2005.



(20) John Wilke and Brody Mullins, "After Katrina,


Republicans Back a Sea of Conservative Ideas," Wall Street


Journal, 15 September 2005.



(21) Editorial, "Mr Bus
h in New Orleans," New York


Times, 16 September 2005.